Female hunters face challenges breaking into the boys club

Female hunters face challenges breaking into the boys club
Tiffany Compton, 29, of Indianapolis, hunts with her dog Oakley at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area near Linton, Ind.,  on Dec. 6.

Tiffany Compton is a former police officer. She has worked as a guard in an all-male lockup inside a state prison. She knows how to use deadly force and take down bad guys twice her size.

But when Compton, 29, recently found herself alone and intimidated on a recent morning, it wasn’t at the hands of hardened criminals. It was a group of duck hunters.

The Indianapolis woman had walked into a wildlife area office to sign up for her first public-lands duck hunt. She was the only woman in a room full of camouflaged men. Immediately, she felt the stares.

And then, with her back turned, she heard words that made her cringe. It was a father talking to his son.

“As I’m looking at the map,” Compton recalled, “I can hear the dad chuckle, and he says (to his son), ‘I know what you’re looking at.’ “.

Women are increasingly making inroads into traditionally male-dominated hunting and shooting sports. Still, stories such as Compton’s are common — and they illustrate a troubling hurdle for hunting groups, wildlife agencies and outdoor retailers seeking recruits to a sport that isn’t growing.

Based on surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of U.S. Hunters has largely stayed flat or declined in recent years, a factor hunting associations and wildlife officials blame at least in part to increased urbanization. The trend poses a particular challenge for state wildlife agencies, whose funding is almost entirely dependent on fishing and hunting license fees and taxes on hunting and shooting equipment.

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“The very last thing you want to do is make a new hunter feel uncomfortable in a scenario like you described when she’s simply trying to draw for a blind,” said Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, a hunting and shooting lobbying group. “Women hunting is the best thing that could happen to our sport.”.

After all, he said, female hunters — or even women who might be merely supportive of hunting — are key allies at the voting booth or in public policy debates about hunting and gun-rights issues.

‘Be prepared to deal with that sexism’.

Of the 13.7 million hunters in the USA in 2011, 11% were women — and that’s up from 9% since 2001.

Women also make up a growing demographic among firearms owners.

For example, the number of women with gun permits in Indiana jumped 42.6% since 2012 — from 86,617 permits two years ago to 123,536 through the first quarter of this year. The National Rifle Association estimated that about 25% of 70,000 attendees at its Indianapolis convention this year were women.

With female hunters and shooters on the rise, companies have taken notice. Women now increasingly host big-game hunting cable television shows; outdoor retailers have begun marketing products and gear designed for women; and one of the nation’s most venerable hunting magazines, Field & Stream, recently put a female hunter on its cover.

But Compton’s story and several others that female hunters told The Indianapolis Star illustrate the depth of the problems women face from some male hunters. Women shared with The Star not only tales of sexism and mere rudeness, but disturbing examples of sexual harassment in the field, at outdoors retailers and at conferences.

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“Men need to be involved in changing that climate,” said Nadya Fouad, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied barriers to minorities and women entering workplaces dominated by white men. “That’s going to take some time. Meanwhile, women need to be prepared to deal with that sexism.”.

‘A lot of sexual comments’.

Morgan Born knows a thing or two about that. The 20-year-old mother from Lake County says she basically taught herself, a female friend and her boyfriend how to hunt ducks.

But in spite of being as skilled as any man in the duck blind, she said, there are some public duck hunting areas near her home where she won’t go because “a little circle of men” have repeatedly made her feel uncomfortable or were rude to her and her female hunting partner.

“It gets kind of weird at times,” Born said. “You get a lot of comments like, ‘I wish you would come in our blind.’ It’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ It is a lot of sexual comments sometimes.”.

Terri Millefoglie, a conservation officer with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said now that she’s an officer with a gun and a badge, male hunters are much more respectful, but she remembers what it was like being the only woman signing in at public hunting areas.

“I got to the point where I asked if I could stay in the car when they (hunting partners) went inside,” she said.

Even in her field, she’s vastly outnumbered by men. She said she’s one of just six women among the 200 officers who patrol the state, enforcing fish and wildlife laws.

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‘Maybe I should show a little respect’.

Elsewhere, female hunters may fare better. California hunter Holly Heyser, the editor of a waterfowl hunting magazine, says she has not been treated disrespectfully by men out in the field.

But the 49-year-old former newspaper editor says that might be because female hunters are fairly common in California.

Still, Heyser knows that sexism in the hunting world can be very real. She noted there are private duck hunting clubs in California that won’t allow her to hunt.

But Heyser is encouraged to see that among the Census survey results, girls younger than 16 make up the fastest-growing segment of hunters, an increase of 165% since 1991. The number of male hunters actually declined by 6% during that time.

She said she assumes it’s because more fathers are taking their daughters out into the field, a trend she hopes continues. If anything, she said, it might raise the level of decorum among her male peers.

“If a dad took a little girl hunting and they were in line at that check station together — a little girl in her pigtails — and some troglodyte sees a woman hunter and, you know, he thinks, ‘Maybe I should make a comment about her ass,’ maybe he would be smart enough to think, ‘Hey, maybe I should show a little respect,’ ” she said.

Compton, who endured the sexist comments on her first duck hunt, has this advice for her male counterparts:.

“Just feel comfortable around us is the biggest thing,” she said. “Don’t make us kind of feel like we’re the outsiders. I think people would be surprised that there are some hard-core women hunters out there.”.

Ryan Sabalow on Twitter @ryansabalow.